What a whirlwind 2017 has been! I’ve been on the move constantly, living out of my backpack while balancing work or play in a different country every couple of weeks. It’s been a blast, but after three months of non-stop motion I’m finding myself a bit weary. As a remedy, I flew into Laos and immediately made my way to Nong Khiaw, a sleepy riverside town that perfectly matched my mood. After my first day this entire year spent alone, I finally got some much needed introvert recharge time, spending a lazy afternoon watching the Ou River meander past from a hammock on my hotel balcony. After a 10 hour long nights sleep, I finally feel rested enough to attempt to turn these half finished thoughts into some sort of a post.
2017 started jet-lagged in Ho Chi Minh, sharing a bottle of rice wine on a friend’s rooftop with little fanfare, as Chinese New Year was still weeks away. Gary and I then took off to Chiang Mai for my first ever climbing trip, where we spent a week playing around on trippy 3D limestone formations and eating our fill of khao soi. After work out in the Kota Tinggi rainforest we made our way to the island of Borneo, beginning our trip at Uncle Tan’s in Sepilok.
Our trip started with a visit to the Orangutan Rehabilitation Center to visit our little ginger cousins, the ‘men of the forest.’ The center itself was more of an open jungle preserve, a protected area without fences cut through by raised wooden platforms, where the goal was to give adolescents life skills with minimal human interaction in the hopes that they would eventually transition back into the jungle on their own. Watching the babies play was a hoot- they reminded me of little, belligerent children, except with the wizened faces and unkempt hair of old men. We spent the morning applauding as they practiced acrobatics, dangling from branches at curious angles, seemingly boneless. Most other tourists scattered during an intense burst of rain but we stuck it out and were rewarded, coming within an arms reach of one stoic ape as he slowly clambered out of the jungle to fix Gary and I with a knowing stare, before turning and ambling down the platform.
Later that day after a bumpy truck ride and a boat down the Kinabatangan River, we arrived at Uncle Tan’s Outpost, quickly learning that monsoon season was no joke. The rest of our trip was spent in a near constant downpour with brief respites of maybe an hour. Our trusty local guide, Em, made the most of the poor conditions by singing Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Have You Ever Seen the Rain’ incessantly, gleefully out of tune. After settling into our raised open-air wooden hut we went for our first night boat ride. The clouds obscured any light, transforming the landscape and casting the surroundings into a tangible, velvety darkness. Using our headlamps to navigate we were able to see brightly colored kingfishers sleeping on the end of branches, slowly paddling closer until we were practically close enough to take a bite. Occasional crocodile eyes glowed ruby red from the river as we found a few impressive owls, civets high in the trees, and a group of long-tailed macaques huddled pathetically together in the rain, not so different from our group below.
We fell asleep to the rain drumming on our tin roof while frogs and insects sang along to the beat, and in the morning were woken up by a hallelujah chorus of birds and mischievous macaques dropping fruit from high in the trees above. During our morning boat ride we spotted countless bright yellow bird-wing butterflies, several eagles, monitor lizards lazily swimming and a family of silver langurs with little mohawks performing circus tricks in the trees. After breakfast we attempted a hike, although the trail was unbelievable muddy. I instantly sunk in up to my shins, making it very difficult to not lose my newly purchased $1 rubber shoes. Even with the rain, clouds of mosquitos followed us around; if I stopped for even a few seconds to attempt to take a picture they would land on my fingers, my only exposed skin other than my face. We saw a few insects and medicinal plants, but mostly I shuffled around swatting mosquitos and chuckling at my undignified state, marveling at the trees’ huge buttresses and networks of lianas.
The sunset boat ride back we were treated to a brief respite from the rain while watching hundreds of flying foxes and the occasional hornbill soaring overhead, the sky behind glowing a soft orange. We also were lucky to see a harem of proboscis monkeys, only found in Borneo, and got close enough that they nervously started throwing figs. They were smaller than I had expected, and absolutely ridiculous looking: huge cucumber nose, no teeth, big belly, webbed fingers, and as if that wasn’t enough, the males can have 20 hour-long red rocket boners. Perfect.
After a final morning boat ride, we headed back for the reverse journey and an afternoon visit to the Rainforest Discovery Center. High up on their canopy walkway we searched for a wild orangutan, my eyes hurting from scanning so many shades of green. At last we saw what we hoped was an orangutan and literally ran down into the jungle, navigating narrow pathways and careening around a corner out of breath to come face to face with a giant mama orangutan having lunch, her baby happily swinging in the tree above. The mother seemed more or less indifferent to our presence, but her baby was playful, coming closer and doing crazy tricks, seeming to show off. Eventually he began breaking off big leafy branches, and swinging his arm to first find the right trajectory, he would slowly float them down to where we would joyously catch them from below, waving them back up at him. Eventually my neck started to hurt from gazing upwards for so long and I decided to lay down, just as the baby started pelting us with guava. I must have made the perfect target, on his first try he managed a direct hit right in the middle of my stomach, bullseye.
The next day it was a long bus ride through seemingly endless palm oil plantations to reach Kota Kinabalu. The lack of scenery caused me to slip into a bit of a despair spiral, brace yourselves: In the past 20 years Borneo has expanded its palm plantations from 60,000 acres to over 6 million acres, a loss of 55% of the natural habitat, with no sign of this growth slowing down any time soon. Witnessing the massive destruction of habitat and corresponding loss of biodiversity first-hand was shocking, especially since this is all ultimately for a product put in processed food that only serves to make us sick. This continued devastation makes it easier for poachers to find animals already on the brink of extinction in the remaining jungle to sell to China’s rapidly rising middle class for their bullshit traditional medicine (a kilogram of pangolin scales can easily fetch up $3,000 on the black market). With the purchasing power of China’s rising middle class and capitalism relying on growth and profit as the only measures of success, we’ve effectively ensured the destruction of the natural world. I was really fun to sit next to for 7 hours!
We opted not to climb Kota Kinabalu, instead enjoying perfect weather and modern amenities in town before heading over to the tiny, oil-rich country of Brunei. Royal Brunei offered a cheap flight that seemed easier than a 14 hour bus ride, and so far it remains the only airline I have ever used with a prayer before take off, and with questions on the immigration form about whether or not I was carrying any prohibited books or ‘more than 200 ml of toilet water.’ Reading the paper on the plane I learned a bit about their Royal Highnesses of Brunei, fascinated by how long their names are: His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah and Her Royal Highness Paduka Seri Pengira Anak Isteri Pengiran Anak Sarah binti Pengiran Haji Salleh Ab Rahaman. We got in just after the sun set, and exiting the airport you practically trip over a mosque, which was beautiful with the haunting call to prayer and a crescent moon rising behind it. The next day we did our best to explore, visiting the central Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin mosque, taking in the views along the waterfront and walking around a beautifully manicured park to a waterfall. People went out of their way to be welcoming and friendly, and we were sad to leave. After a short bus ride into the Malaysian state of Sarawak we arrived in Miri, our launching pad to the largest caves in the world.
Gunung Mulu National Park provided me with everything I had imagined Borneo to be. Early in the morning we boarded a tiny propeller plane, as the palm oil plantations finally gave way to endless expanses of jungle, interrupted only by rivers and a tiny shaved strip of runway. The biodiversity and sheer amount of in-your-face nature was astounding, even the man-made boardwalk used to navigate different jungle trails created a sort of insect superhighway, spoiling us with how easy it was to spot critters. Our five days in the park were spent caving and hiking, fully enjoying being in a place that actually felt untouched and wild.
Our main motivation to visit Mulu was the caving, and our first stop was the Lang Cave, the rain outside amplified as it echoed off the chamber walls and dripped off stalactites. In a way I felt like I was in the deep sea, rock formations making curtains of kelp, oversized jellyfish floating overhead and intricate blooms of coral all around, as the occasional bat skirted gracefully overhead. Visiting the Deer Cave, the largest cave passage in the world, I found myself awestruck, practically needing to fall to my knees. It’s impossible to even begin to describe the immensity and vastness, 280 meters high at the tallest point, and full of tiny waterfalls dripping through cracks overhead. Emerging from the cave we were able to enjoy a sunset beer while watching 3 million wrinkle lipped bats make their nightly exodus, before heading back to the lodge for an early dinner.
Our biggest hike was an 8km loop to Paku Waterfall, where we were able to take a postcard worthy swim. The trail back was pretty muddy, stealing my flip flops repeatedly until I finally gave up and took them off, squishing back singing the BeeGees ‘How Deep is Your Mud.’ Another day on the Kenyang Loop hike we were able to see two unbelievably tiny Pygmy squirrels playing tag, and my favorite nature sighting of the trip, a flying lemur BASE jumping from tree to tree. Every night we walked along the boardwalk, counting how many creatures we found: Bull frogs deflating and inflating like whoopie cushions, an adorable pit viper, scary fluorescent scorpions, a snail eating snake, colorful sleeping kingfishers, meeping tiny tree hole frogs, chit-chatting geckos, long legged centipedes (a creation straight from my nightmares), one shy tarantula, granddaddy dinosaur lizards, long haired caterpillars and infinity stick bugs with their incredible camouflage. Once they fold their long, knobby legs alongside their body it’s nearly impossible to distinguish them from an actual stick.
Another day was spent cruising up river on a long boat to visit the Cave of the Wind, where I played a makeshift xylophone on hollowed out stalactites. Later, we stomped through the Clearwater Cavern, cut through by a giant river, and wandered through a forest of stalagmites in the Langang Cave. Our “adventure caving” experience was in the Racer Cave, where we spent the morning getting muddy climbing up and down ropes and shimmying through narrow openings. Inside we also saw the eponymous racer snakes eagerly waiting for a bat to fly a just little too close, and almost saw the final joining of a stalactite and mite into a column, the two lovingly stretched towards one another like the Sistine Chapel’s ‘Hand of God,’ a union millions of years in the making.
Exiting Mulu turned out to be a bit of an ordeal, flights were cancelled two days in a row, causing us to miss our connecting flights. Once we finally were able to get to Miri, a power outage left us unable to use the internet to shift around our plans. Eventually, after a quick flight and all day and a night in the Kuching airport, we were at last able to catch a 6:30am flight to Hong Kong. My travel delirium helped heighten the contrast between the Bornean jungle and the sleek, modern city I had just arrived in- easily the most fashionable, efficient and cleanest I have ever been to. Even the immigration line was a treat, aside from being extremely efficient, the people watching felt like being at some sort of a runway show. With everyone around me in fancy shoes and carrying designer handbags, hair in all different colors and all kinds of elaborate styles, I watched in unabashed fascination, hoping my trekking pants and hiking boots could pass for some sort of a new trend.
I was lucky enough to stay with Gary’s incredibly hospitable family friends, and had the added bonus of my childhood friend Liz in town for a visit. We packed a lot into our three days, taking ferry rides along the waterfront to admire the architecture, shopping in craziness of Mong Kok, hiking on Lan Tau island for views of the city, visiting a giant Buddha, eating the best Italian food I have maybe ever eaten (Gary and I are still talking about it months later), traveling through hip SoHo up the world’s largest series of escalators, and visiting a traditional temple. Our last night we enjoyed a home-cooked Shabbat dinner before experiencing the craziness of Lan Kwai Fong over a few beers. I left early the next morning with a bit of a hangover, stuffed full of dumpling soup, my cheeks sore from too much laughter- and I really can’t imagine a better way for a vacation to end.